Aircraft Life-Cycle Costs

It is very easy to question a nation for its decision to retire seemingly useful aircraft, but there are many economic factors that need to be taken into account. The Luftwaffe is an excellent case study because of the many Soviet designs it inherited after reunification with East Germany. Almost overnight, the Luftwaffe came to possess many of the most advanced military aircraft and equipment that the Soviet Union had to offer. But unfortunately, much of it had not been well-maintained and many aircraft, particularly older designs like the MiG-21 and MiG-23 were in a poor state of repair. So even though it may at first glance appear that Germany was foolish to rapidly dispose of MiG-23s when they could have been upgraded to at least the same level of combat effectiveness as the F-4 Phantom II, the actual condition of those planes must be remembered. West Germany has taken exceptionally good care of its F-4s and extensively updated them with new avionics and weapons systems, but East German MiG-23s were in much worse condition and had been little altered since they were initially produced.

Pair of F-4s and a MiG-29 of the Luftwaffe
Pair of F-4s and a MiG-29 of the Luftwaffe

However, this was not the case of the vaunted MiG-29s which were almost brand new at the time they were acquired by the Luftwaffe. But even so, these aircraft are being eliminated from service and given to Poland. The reason for this decision, which also probably played a role in the retirement of the MiG-23 and other East German planes as well, is more likely supportability costs. We often hear about how much it costs to buy any particular model of plane, but people often underestimate just how expensive it is to operate and maintain aircraft. Not only do you have to consider the direct costs of flying the plane (pilot pay, fuel, and other consumables), but also the costs of pilot training, the costs of parts and labor to perform routine maintenance, the costs of training ground crew to perform that maintenance, the costs of obtaining and maintaining support equipment needed to service the planes, and the costs of the facilities needed to perform this service and maintenance. We often lump all these factors together into the "life-cycle cost" of an airplane.

As aircraft have become increasingly complex, the life-cycle costs associated with maintaining sophisticated equipment and training crew to operate and service that equipment have grown substantially. For this reason, we see a trend in militaries around the world to standardize on as few types of aircraft as possible. By operating only a couple types of planes, a military can consolidate its training and servicing activities thereby minimizing the amount of money needed for aircraft operations and maintenance.

This motivation is likely a major factor in the German decision to eliminate the MiG-29. The nation can instead focus its maintenance and training budgets on a few Western designs, which tend to share much in common, as opposed to siphoning off a large chuck of that money to support a completely different Soviet design.

This trend can also be seen in the United States where the services are looking to eliminate a wide variety of aircraft and standardize on only a few designs, particularly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The US military hopes to replace at least four types of planes with this single airframe, which will allow the services to make tremendous savings in support costs.
- answer by Jeff Scott, 2 June 2002

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